The title of this blog post represents the struggle with the language barrier, but also, all the jokes and laughter we shared. #muchosiiiiii (mucho creds to David)
Reflecting on the past week in Bolivia from my room back in Pittsburgh, the experience so close to my heart seems farther away than than I’d like. It was a long week of struggling with the language barrier, but a too short of a time for all the laughs and smiles we shared. I wish it never had to end. I’m sad it’s over, but happy that I was given the chance to go. I learned a lot about Bolivia, Bolivian business, and myself as a person.
Challenges with Cultural and Ethical Norms
As I mentioned in my last blog post, I expected the greatest cultural difficulty to be the language barrier. As the week passes in Bolivia, my opinion still stands the same. Communication is the ground work of all relationships. It is the the biggest contributor to mutual understanding and trust. From the culture smart book, we know that Bolivians value relationship building very highly, especially when it comes to doing business with others. It was something I worried about before leaving for Bolivia, and it is still something I struggle with in country.
The most obvious struggle with the language barrier is in the classrooms. Naty, Adri, and Jean Carla are not always with us in the classrooms and if they are they are not always right next to us, because we’re all spread out playing with the kids. I’ve worked with kids before for many years, in summer daycamps and after school care programs. I’ve also had a little experience with special needs kids. However, working with the kids in CEOLI was, although very meaningful, was also one of the most frustrating encounters that I’ve had with children. I understand that “smiling is a universal language” as we mentioned in class, and I did just that, but I wanted to connect with the kids even more than that. I’ve always been at an advantage at my daycamps because the kids either spoke English, or the most common foreign language would be Chinese, which I am fluent in as well. I really understood the power of a common language, especially when I worked with children who only spoke Chinese. There is a sense of comfort and familiarity and you become someone they trust, just because you can speak the language. I loved working with the CEOLI kids, but I was frustrated because I wished for more. I know the power of language and communication and I regret not having the ability to do more and connect better with the children. A lot of the times the kids would try to tell me something, and obviously I would have no idea. I could only give a confused smile and nod, or call for Naty/Adri/Jean Carla to save me. I took French all through elementary and high school, but knowing the importance of language, I bought a Spanish book and tried to learn it in only a short three days after the flood of midterms. It was better than having no knowledge of Spanish, but it was only enough for me to pick up very simple vocabulary. In my attempt to learn Spanish, I could maybe barely survive in a Spanish speaking country using gestures and pictures and Google Translate, but it was not even close to enough to making conversation.
Because of my lack of Spanish proficiency, I found myself being less outgoing than usual. I am usually very open to putting myself out there for new experiences or speaking to new people, but I saw myself taking more a backseat. Part of it was that I WAS incompetent, but another part was just that I FELT incompetent. It sounds the same but the differentiation is important. In retrospect, nobody is every just “incompetent.” Competency is a scale. A person is never fully competent nor fully incompetent. It improves from constant learning and practice. I tried by buying a Spanish workbook, but when I got to Bolivia, I scared myself out of actually using it, which in my opinion is the worst thing that I could do. My brain knows that putting myself out there in the uncomfortable is the only way to adapt and learn, but my heart was too afraid to do so. It is probably my biggest regret of the trip.
Global Business: imperfect puzzle pieces that fit together
My definition of global business isn’t simply business all over the world. It is a multi pieced puzzle. Pieces are all different shapes and different colours, but they fit together perfectly, one way or other. It’s not as simple as just business is everywhere, but business is different in different places. It was very interesting realizing the differences between business in the USA and business in Bolivia.
We visited Carla Quiroga’s boutique, and listened to her entrepreneurship venture. I remember many of us were curious about her online website, because prices were all in USD, yet her store was only in Bolivia. Her answer to the question of why that was stood out most to me. She said the reason was basically because e-commerce is not as effective in Bolivia. This was shocking to me because everything in the United States revolves around e-commerce now – basically the less human interaction, the better. The most effective form of technology based business in Bolivia was marketing through Facebook. She said that most sales in Bolivia came from clients that see her clothes on Facebook but would message her for sales, or from walk in sales. Therefore, the e-commerce site is priced in USD because it is very purely for the US customers, who prefer e-commerce over any other form of business. This is similar for CEOLI, who relied a lot more on traditional flyering and Facebook for advertising, and phone calls and walk ins for registration for swim lessons. On the other hand, swim lesson advertising and registration in the US can be done all through e-commerce.
The importance of relationship was very evident, when I observed Jean Carla interacting with Ronald, the director of CEOLI. We had to meet with Ronald, and Jean Carla acted as our translator for one of our meetings. Before our meeting, I saw Jean Carla just chatting casually with Ronald. It seemed like a casual chat, but it was significant in length, whereas “small talk” in the US is kept relatively small and short, just enough to break the ice. It was something that I was’t able to participate in directly, because of my incompetent Spanish, but it was an interesting observation. Because business is less transactional, there is less of a time pressure and I found that that made it more casual and also more genuine. First of all, punctuality wasn’t super important. Meetings sometimes were started anywhere from 10 minutes to 30minutes late, and it wasn’t that he was running late. He wasn’t running in apologizing. Punctuality is just more casual and flexible in Bolivian business. However, this casual mood gave for more genuine conversations. People weren’t busy running from meeting to meeting, task to task. They really spend the time helping you as much as you need. We had a lot fo questions for Ronald in both our meetings but you would never catch him nor our translator checking their watches or cutting our meetings short. The genuineness of Bolivian business is something that inspires me and something I wish I could bring to business in the US and Canada.
What did you learn about yourself?
I find this question extremely relevant to my experience. Before the in-country experience I was very very very doubtful of the things they taught us in the service learning class. We spent many classes talking about the superiority of service learning, transferrable skills, and team work. I felt very strongly against the preaching of these concepts, not the specifically the concepts themselves. I believed in service, the acquisition of skills from these kind of experiences, and the value of teamwork, but I was very skeptical and annoyed, that we spent half a semester just TALKING about these concepts. I felt like these were things that we should already understand as 19, 20, 21-year-olds. It seemed redundant and unnecessary. I felt like our time could be better spent working on the scope and doing actual work for our project. Because of this, I wish to apologize to my teachers for my reluctance to participate in class. Although I was distrustful, I now benefit from a better reflection, because I reluctantly listened in class, specifically in areas of vocalizing transferrable skills and the specific benefits in service learning
“What is your greatest weakness and strength?” is the interview question that i dread the most. I had a decent answer to this prior to this service learning trip, but it wasn’t my best, and it wasn’t an answer that I was satisfied with. My reflection of the in-country experience has developed an answer that I am finally satisfied with. There was a class where we discussed about the vocalization of our experience. There is no point in an experience if we can’t vocalize what we gained from it. My weakness is something that has always been around, but I’d never been able to pinpoint it. Passive (traditional) teaching styles are basically my hamartia, my tragic flaw. It’s been a struggle for me to stay awake in lectures every since I could remember. I joke about it as a talent, because I can fall asleep through almost everything. I feel bad every time it happens, but I don’t know why or how. I’ve tried sleeping more, drinking more water, pinching myself, changing my eating habits…but nothing seems to work. Unfortunately, it happened in Bolivia too, when we listened to speakers, and after all this time, I finally am able to vocalize why and what my weakness is. “Kimi falls asleep anytime she isn’t actively engaged in something,” is how my friend explained it, and I found it so accurate. It happens every time during lectures when I am passively listening, when someone is just talking at me – a one way conversation. On the other hand, I never fell asleep during our meetings with Ronald. It was a two way conversation where I felt my opinion, whether in agreement or disagreement, was just as important as the other party. There was never a yawn or eyes-glazing over.
As for my strength, which is confrontation, I want to give a big shout out and thank you to Hillary and Arielle. Again, this was an attribute I always exhibited, but never thought to nor could put into words. On a particular day at CEOLI, my team wanted to work on our analysis and recommendations of CEOLI’s pool, as outlined in our scope, but Hillary and Arielle adamantly pushed us to work in the classrooms. I was very frustrated because I was very passionate and very keen on providing good recommendations for the pool, which was CEOLI’s current highest revenue project. I didn’t mind playing with the kids for a portion of our time there, but I felt it was a little wasteful of the pool project’s time to just play with the kids. I held my frustrations in all day, because peers told me that it wasn’t worth confronting authority. However, I eventually did at the end of the day, and I’m 100% glad I did. It was an awkward conversation and I could tell both parties weren’t very happy, even when it ended, but I think it was necessary and ultimately beneficial. The situation didn’t actually change; we were still expected to spend a good chunk of our time in the classrooms, but, just speaking for myself, I gained a better understanding of their opinions and the goal of the project. I hope the newfound understanding was mutual and that they could understand and forgive me for being a brat that day. Undefined goals is one challenge of working in a team that we discussed in class, and in this situation, that’s what it was for me. Because scope was so heavily focused on in class, although “playing with the kids” was mentioned in class, I expected it to be a small portion of the project, but apparently that was wrong. CEOLI time is meant to be CEOLI time where we focus on helping them out directly, while the consulting portion happens on our own time. I’m glad I had that cleared, because the next day, when we were asked to join up in the classrooms, I received it a lot better. I’ve always view confrontation and criticism as a good thing, both towards myself or from myself. That’s the only way for improvement. However, it’s always the hardest when it comes to confrontation of authority. The value of confrontation doesn’t change but it becomes so much harder to do it. Confrontation shouldn’t be a one way rant; it should be a conversation, and that’s what really helped me work through my frustrations.
My new answers to this interview question weren’t something new I developed through this experience. Rather, it was a matter of realization and putting it into the words, which was facilitated by this service learning class and in country experience. On top of apologizing for falling asleep during lectures, and being a brat that one day, the combination of class discussions and the in country real life experience really did help me vocalize my experience, skills, strengths and weaknesses.
What did you learn about yourself and international service?
Finally, I am more accepting of a very important idea that was presented in class: the superiority of service learning. When it was first introduced to me in class, I was extremely reluctant to accept it. I felt that regular community service could be just as beneficial as service learning. I felt that there is just as much to learn from generic volunteering as there is from a service learning project. However, after the trip, I am more understanding of that lecture. I realized it when I cried at the final goodbye at the airport. I’ve never cried at the last day of volunteering at a regular summer day camp. I think I cried because the experience was so much stronger than other service opportunities I’ve had. I gave a lot and gained a lot. One article we read in class claimed that service learning made more “effective” and “engaged” citizens: “All of the above suggests that including service [learning] as part of students’ educational experience can increase their motivation and opportunity to learn about politics, which in turn could increase the likelihood of their continued engagement in public life.” I don’t know about politics, but I did have a stronger yearning for continued engagement, than other volunteer experiences. I had thoughts about applying for the trip again next year, or coming back myself. I’m glad it’s a ten year long partnership, and I really wish I could go back again. There’s so much potential, and I wish I could be part of it all. I cried because I knew that stepping onto that plane meant goodbye for a longer time that I wanted and it wouldn’t be myself coming back next year to work with Jean Carla, Ronald, Naty, Adri, and the kids. My tears were my wish to continue being involved with the relationships and the project and, maybe not next year, but I hope one day I do come back to visit all my new friends and the kids at CEOLI.
Gracias, Cochabamba – you will always have a piece of my heart
#BuenoChau, until we meet again.
A short video celebrating our trip: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1Tu0mtqbGFZ-Z4kMvGC2RiG7ysLA5-H6K